The Heart Off Guard: Joe Henry holds on to his hat

the gospel according to water review

Joe Henry provides us with countless invaluable images across his new album, The Gospel According to Water. One of the most poignant is a scene from the title song, where the narrator sits at his windowsill and watches a procession of people parade by; each keeps their hat clutched tightly in hand, guarding against the fitful squall they know must come sooner or later. Henry takes it all in from behind a pane of glass, and sings with the quiet authority of a man who knows what it’s like to have the hat blown off his head. The Gospel According to Water is the 15th Joe Henry album, expanding a rich catalog of songs that reckon with blustery weather by all its various names— cruel fate, ravenous time, fickle providence, the slipstream of mystery. It is also the first Joe Henry album to arrive following a blindsiding cancer diagnosis late last year, each of these 13 songs written in the aftermath of the big shoe’s drop. A cruder man might say that shit’s gotten real, but with Henry there is always a deep reserve of eloquence. “Shadows lead us onward/ the darkness still at play,” he offers in a song called “Mule.” He’s been writing for years about how the dark itself proves a guiding light, how struggle is the mustard seed from which hope springs— and now he’s left with no choice but to believe it. Perhaps it is right to say that these new songs are similar in kind but different in clarity to the songs that came before them; that they hover over familiar concerns but exert a new kind of gravity. They’re songs forged in the refiner’s fire. They’re the sound of rubber meeting the road.

Refinement is a good way to think of this album, though that’s more a matter of happenstance than intention. The entirety of The Gospel According to Water was recorded quick-and-dirty in just two days’ time, initially meant to be a data dump for Henry’s publisher. It wasn’t until he listened back that Henry realized the lucidity with which these recordings speak, the lack of any need for additional polish. They are released here more or less as-is, though anyone expecting the jagged edges of, say, Springsteen’s Nebraska will want to check their assumptions at the door: These songs are beautiful and deep, autumnal in their tone and unhurried in their pace, and they all sound crisp, clean, and complete. The biggest tell to the serendipitous nature of these sessions is the absence of drummer Jay Bellerose, long a fixture of the Joe Henry players; you won’t hear any of his rolling thunder here, but you will hear fleet-fingered acoustic guitar lines from Henry and from John Smith; sparkling piano work from Patrick Warren; understated melodies from reed man Levon Henry, whose smoky sax and clarinet wind through a handful of songs. On two selections, you’ll hear harmonies from the unassailable Birds of Chicago, summoning rapturous soul. There is some of the same loose, brambly spirit that characterized Henry’s previous record, 2017’s feral Thrum, but this one is decidedly less prickly and more serene; the kind of quiet that commands active attention and full engagement.

Ever since Reverie, Henry’s songwriting has moved further from folk traditions and closer to poetic ones, meaning his lyrics aren’t necessarily linear so much as they are impressionistic. The Gospel According to Water feels like a purification of that approach; indeed, there may be no songwriter currently working whose lyrics work as well as standalone poetry (maybe Karen Peris of The Innocence Mission), and Gospel is the rare album that may be best experienced by reading along with the words, where you can see them arranged on the page in neat stanzas. Consider the tidy couplets in “Green of the Afternoon,” which the novelist Colum McCann rightly situates in the mystic lineage of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

I mean to sing of love that goes uncured–
You come to me and silence every word;
You come to me and silence every word…
But what goes unspoken may not go unheard

Henry understands the formal power in such tight, carefully structured writing, which might explain his ongoing allegiance to standards. At least since Scar he’s written songs that sound like tattered pages from the Great American Songbook, and The Gospel According to Water includes some of his most desolate, his most melodically robust. “Famine Walk,” the spindly album opener, sounds like a wee small hours confession from some alternate-universe Frank Sinatra, laid low by grievous loss, hollowed out by a few too many things that didn’t go his way. The sighing “Gates of Prayer Cemetery #2,” with a wistful moan from Levon, could pass as nightclub fodder from the world of Jim Jarmush’s zombie movie (“the dead from here, don’t stay dead long”). But the album’s most distinctive feat of songwriting is “Orson Welles,” a character sketch that belongs in the category with Henry’s previous songs to Richard Pryor and Charlie Parker. This form is associated with Henry in the same way that blue-collar malaise is associated with Springsteen, sexy Bible stories with Leonard Cohen, triple-decker puns with Elvis Costello; his song for Welles isn’t Wikipedia-style recitation but a tender, first-person reckoning with a man who ascended too high and too quickly, and now must make peace with inevitable decline (“if you provide the terms of my surrender, I’ll provide the war”).

There is enormous temptation to consider the album solely in light of its backstory, to hear it as a “brush with mortality” album along the lines of the latter-day Johnny Cash recordings, perhaps Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. But while the songs here are informed by recent trials, they resist any effort to hear them as songs about cancer, nor even songs about death. The larger concern is living in uncertainty, locating a personal center of gravity in a world where there’s never firm footing to be found; following the shadows as they point toward the light. “How is it we’ve held out through all of these rumbling years/ that rush like the wind from our sails in a tumble of tears?” Henry asks in “The Book of Common Prayer,” and it’s a useful framing question for the songs that surround it. For his part, the narrator in “General Tzu Names the Planets for His Children” ascribes titles to the heavenly bodies that spin ever beyond his reach, telling himself he’s imposed order on a vastness untroubled by the vanity of his decrees. In “Bloom,” the singer imagines time as a couple of freight trains, rumbling past him in either direction; he’s left standing at the station, capturing a moment’s clarity in a tumble of romantic verse.

Several songs in Henry’s Gospel employ the language of religious pilgrimage and devotion, though it’s always with a tacit rejection of anything overly dogmatic. “Not all are saved, not all of us care to be,” he admits in “Green of the Afternoon,” dismissing the idea that peace is found in the grip of assurance, asserting instead a kind of contentment found in the quest itself, a surrender to impermanence and uncertainty. Another white flag is unfurled in “Choir Boy,” the gnarled and off-kilter closing song, which includes the closest thing this album offers to prescriptive advice: “Raise your hands above your head and hold the air/ kick your keys in front of you into grass and leave them there/ surrender everything back to the ground.” Sometimes, surrender isn’t entirely optional. The man in “Famine Walk” speaks to “the heart off guard but ever opened wide,” sounding as though he’s been robbed of anything to cling to save his own trembling vulnerability. (“You’ve gotta get taken for everything to have anything to give,” an Over the Rhine song counsels.)

The true Gospel religion is ratified in “The Book of Common Prayer,” where all of us are bound together in acknowledgement of “love and the breach it repairs.” With any luck, a copy of this record will find its way into the hands of Nick Cave, who, following the tragic death of his teenage son, spoke about loss as a catalyst for radical openness, empathy, and zeal for human connection. Like Cave’s Ghosteen, Henry’s album reckons with private catastrophes but refuses isolation; its woundedness points toward the grace and understanding we owe one another, and to how we find our bearings not in relation to the shifting ground but to the neighbors reeling and scrambling alongside us. “In Time for Tomorrow,” ravishing pastoral folk, sounds like a word of resolve from two lovers whose intention is to put their season of bereavement behind, no matter what circumstance dictates. And “The Fact of Love,” so big and dramatic one’s tempted to call it a power ballad, casts its eye to an uncertain horizon before doubling down on love’s invitation here and now. “The hour now is hanging free/ and the stars are still above our heads,” sings Henry. How’s that for good news?

Rooted and Restless: Acoustic travelogues from Steep Canyon Rangers, I’m With Her

see you around

American folk music is rife with restlessness; its backroads and byways are well-trod by lonesome hobos and wayfaring strangers; by ramblers, drifters, lovers and leavers. On two new albums, restlessness is both a theme and an aesthetic. Steep Canyon Rangers’ Out in the Open and I’m With Her’s See You Around are both travelogues, full of weary and weathered but ultimately hopeful songs about change, transition, and movin’ on. And, both albums embody roots music idioms while also subtly pushing at the boundaries. These records are respectful of tradition without ever being beholden to it; they are eager to offer an expansive and subtly progressive take on familiar forms.

Few bands have done more to expand bluegrass’ cultural cache than the Rangers, a fleet-fingered North Carolina troupe now well-decorated for their work in support of Steve Martin. Martin doesn’t appear anywhere on Out in the Open, which means there’s more air time for singer/guitar player Woody Platt and singer/banjoist Graham Sharp. It also means there’s room in the fold for another renaissance man, this time producer Joe Henry, who’s got an extensive track record working with artists who both embody and elaborate the grammar of folk music. (Give a listen to his albums with Hayes Carll and Joan Baez, among others.) Henry gives the Rangers room to roam, which happens to be one of the things bluegrass is really great for: On up-tempo songs with locomotive rhythms, the Rangers sound like they’re racing into open horizons, sketching the invisible boundaries of an untamed frontier. “Let Me Out of This Town,” the most locomotive of the bunch, is the jittery confession of a man bursting to escape from small-town monotony, set to a frenzy of banjo notes that sound like a train hellbent on careening off the tracks. Escape isn’t an option for the narrator in “Can’t Get Home,” a deceptively rollicking tune about a soldier imprisoned in his own memories. Songs like these and “Roadside Anthems”—where nimble mandolin work weaves through galloping banjo and loping fiddle—offer familiar bluegrass pyrotechnics, speed and virtuosity in service of melodic purity. Yet there are just as many moments that prove how pliable bluegrass orthodoxy can be. A campfire lullaby called “Going Midwest”—where a man packs his bags and says goodbye to everything he’s ever known—is carried by acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies; it’s spectral and spare, singer/songwriter introspection that recalls no one more than The Milk Carton Kids. The title song, a rickety construction of puffed harmonica and steady-thumping kick drums, is a shambolic delight, sounding like it’s constantly on the verge of collapsing but staying upright through sheer whimsy and will. Its good-natured goofiness is eclipsed only by “Shenandoah Valley,” where the Rangers slow things down considerably for a bit of old-timey soft-shoe, rhapsodizing about a romantic dalliance with the power to stop time.

These are all subtle shake-ups that reveal a musical tradition in constant dialog with itself, in service of songs that grope for solid ground in a world gone topsy-turvy. “Farmers and Pharaohs” is a mirrored hall of romantic regrets, given folksy flourishes by Nicky Sander’s swooping fiddle. “I learned the hard way/ Now it’s too late/ If I could take back that very day,” the song goes, and you hardly need the clause completed: It’s the worst moment of a man’s life, captured in amber, a talisman and a mile-marker born of wisdom and rue. Similarly, “When She Was Mine” tells one of the oldest stories in the world, and it tells it all right there in its title. The ringer in the bunch is “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” a Dylan cast-off-turned-standard, here adorned with mossy harmonies that make it sound ancient. It’s a soldier’s windswept lament; he knows he can’t escape death, but at least he can go out with dignity. He fits in well on Out in the Open, an album that ennobles tradition by leaning into change.

The same could be said of See You Around, the debut album from I’m With Her, just about the super-est group imaginable within today’s acoustic roots scene. A working unit since 2014, the all-ladies band is so named for their embrace of collaboration and camaraderie, values they uphold throughout this ego-free set. The group—Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan—discovered an easy chemistry through back-stage jams at various concert halls and festivals; wrote the lion’s share of their album together, save for a stray Gillian Welch cover; and convened with producer Ethan Johns, who gives the album a clean, spare production—mostly just voice, guitar, mandolin, and fiddle— that leaves them no room to hide. (So unembellished is the production, the introduction of electric fuzz in “I-89” feels just slightly less disruptive than Jack White’s adoption of a bass line in “Seven Nation Army,” all those years ago.) Rather than embalming the album in austerity, though, Johns’ tidiness highlights the band’s sophistication and allure—the melodic precision and emotional acuity in their songs; the casualness with which they blend bluegrass, folk, and country traditions; and the way the three of them only ever sound like one person, whether trading verses or harmonizing together. If the Steep Canyon Rangers are a band built for speed and showmanship, I’m With Her trades in sly seduction—songs that are winsome both in their earthiness and in their seamless virtuosity. Listen to how “Game to Lose” rises from doleful, fiddle-led verses to a hard-strummed, staccato chorus, reminiscent of the progressive string band music Watkins innovated in her Nickel Creek days; or, to the hazy hypnosis in “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree),” a loping and languid tryst that turns southern sultriness into something atmospheric and enticing.

See You Around—its very title suggesting movement and separation—is a scrapbook of stories, many of them involving travel and transition. It’s an appropriately frayed collection, full of loose ends and spritely invention—consider the weightless harmonies that hold “Wild One” aloft, or the easygoing spontaneity of “Waitsfield,” an instrumental rag—yet it also feels like it adds up to something complete, a lifetime of experience and regret, seen from a vantage point that’s clear-eyed without being callous. World-weariness fleshes out even the most archetypical tales: “Overland” is a railroad song that finds relief in the turned page: “Oh I’ve lived through more than I could tell/ I’ve sold all that I could sell/ Finally leaving it behind, goodbye, farewell.” And it’s not the only wayfaring tune here; “I-89,” built from layers of delicate picking and wheezing blues, imagines wanderlust as a survival instinct: “If there was another way out I’d take it/ If there was another way down I’d go.” Feminine agency animates romantic arrangements of all varieties, even as the songs reflect just how much these entanglements change and shape us: “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree)” is about a dalliance in the orchard, told with just the right blend of discretion and lustiness, while “Close it Down” is about a barroom fling with a married man, one in which both parties see things for what they are, and even extend empathy to the wife who’s back home. And then there’s “Ain’t That Fine,” a song of experience that’s all about accepting mistakes and moving on, told with wistful humor (“I can’t believe the things I put my mother through”) and hard-won contentment (“Some folks have it better/ But oh, we’ve got it good”). There are bruises aplenty here, but I’m With Her never stops to count them: See You Around is concerned with the events that push us forward, not the ones that hold us back; it’s a document of evolution, and the travelogue of pilgrims making progress.

Make Me Another Promise: The Milk Carton Kids sing American tunes

allthethings

At 14 words, All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do is an album title calling out for a shorthand. Consider a helpful phrase from the accompanying press release, “waltzing into disaster,” which captures well the album’s spirit of whimsy and foreboding. Its dozen songs, clear-eyed and bruised, reflect an older, more weathered version of The Milk Carton Kids, hobbling forward in the wake of disasters both personal and cultural. It’s an album whose margins are haunted by remembrances of runaway lovers and a nation that’s all but vanished; its narrators still remember how thing used to be, and sigh in the opening lines: “Just look at us now.” And, it’s an album that dreams a highway through the backwoods and byways of American folk song, employing canonical forms for their emotional directness and uncluttered sense of narrative. These are—to borrow another recently-popular title—songs of experience, tattered but true.

The Milk Carton Kids are Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, both of whom play acoustic guitar, sing in close, single-mic harmonies, and dodge comparisons to Simon & Garfunkel (and also Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings) that have never felt quite right; as songwriters, Ryan and Pattengale are engaged with an older school of parlor songs and soft-shoe routines that convey deep melancholy through wistful, romantic melodies. These new songs of experience, all of them originals, are their best work to date, conveying the emotional acuity and formal control of the great American songbook. They are plainspoken, and they contain multitudes. “Mourning in America,” a state of the union in the Rhymin’ Simon vein, reflects political dislocation through street-level detail and a sense of mundane weariness; “You Break My Heart” is a song about every heartbreak, even though it was pretty clearly written about a particular one.

This is the first Milk Carton Kids album to be recorded with outside musicians, and to guide them through this new adventure Ryan and Pattengale enlisted Joe Henry, a producer who’s developed a strong catalog of albums that wring spontaneity and joyful abandon from hallowed folk forms (for examples, see his work with Allen Toussaint, Aaron Neville, or his own recent Thrum). Henry presided over Nashville sessions that brought in a rich cast of supporting players. Levon Henry’s clarinet snakes through the fleet-footed “Younger Years,” while Russ Pahl’s pedal steel sounds like a high-and-lonesome train whistle in the background. Brittany Haas’ fiddle leads off “Big Time,” something like a last waltz crossed with a barn-burning hootenanny. Spectral, lovelorn ballads like “I’ve Been Loving You” have their edges frayed by ghostly piano and steel guitar, while “Blindness,” a haunted house of a song, seems to be dissolving as it plays, an apparition fading back into shadow. There are subtly cinematic effects in every song here, and none as good as the harmonies of the Milk Carton Kids themselves; the genius of this record is how it broadens their scope while maintaining the centrality of their chemistry. It never doesn’t sound like a Milk Carton Kids album.

The result is an album that takes cues from some of the ramshackle myth-making of The Basement Tapes; the well-worn, second-hand Americana of Gram Parsons; the casual virtuosity with which Willie Nelson synthesizes roadhouse roots into something seamless and supple, with Pattengale’s ragged lead guitar ably filling in for Trigger. The album’s centerpiece is “One More for the Road,” an impressionistic epic that stretches Sinatra’s wee-small-hours desolation across the broader canvas of the American frontier, a saloon song by way of a campfire rag.  “Nothing is Real” is weary juke joint R&B, swaying in place to its dawning disillusionment. “Younger Years” recalls the wispy cowboy songs of Marty Robbins, while “You Break My Heart” is a lovelorn standard, thread-bear ruminations from a spectral Cole Porter. “I’ve Been Loving You” marries songbook formalism to country twang so ably, it sounds as though it should have been included on Stardust.

The songs were born of fracture and chaos—break-ups and relocations, health scares and a declining national mood. They sound suitably beleaguered and wary in their evocations of wayward countries and faithless lovers, and it is occasionally hard to tell whether a given line is meant to reflect personal crisis or the broader tragedies unfolding around us. (For that particular synthesis, there remains no better model than Joe Henry’s 2007 album Civilians, a singular songwriting achievement of such elegant and alluring metaphors, it can’t help but be seminal for younger writers like Ryan and Pattengale.) “Just Look at Us Now,” chronicles the curdling of youthful idealism: “We wanted to prove we were something, we were special/ We knew in our hearts we weren’t the only ones,” the song goes, and it could just as easily be a story of fated lovers or of an exceptional empire’s slow crumble. “Make me another promise if you dare,” Ryan sings, hard-won skepticism from someone who’s been through the ringer. “Mourning in America” allows for less ambivalence, capturing a disheartened trudge through an atmosphere of malaise. Later, when Ryan and Pattengale sing “I’ve been loving you all wrong,” it could be either the patriot’s boondoggle or the fool’s sad revelation; either way, they sing it like it’s too little, too late. “Unwinnable War” imagines love as a battlefield, though there’s always the outside chance it’s just about the battlefield as a battlefield; even “Big Time,” ostensibly a party jam, masks a menacing eschatology: “This’ll be the last time/ we’re gonna have a big time.”

These are all familiar lessons from the Songbook, learned anew with each new generation: The times, they change. Things fall apart. We come, in the age’s most uncertain hour, singing American tunes. The Milk Carton Kids end their album with a great one. “All the Things…,” performed by Pattengale with haunting vulnerability, is a divorce song, written from a place of reflection and regret. But for its bridge, the spare arrangement suddenly breaks open into a full-color dream sequence, Ryan joining in and the two of them daring to imagine something like peace and reconciliation. They sound like they know they’re not the first to wake up and find their house in shambles; to lift up a song for better days.

Another Mutilated World: A swan song from Joan Baez

On Whistle Down the Wind, intended as the curtain call of a legendary recording career, Joan Baez says goodbye—all the while acknowledging that it’s never quite that easy. Think of the poet Adam Zagajewski, who exhorts us to “praise the mutilated world.” And think of Mary Oliver, who writes: “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” The songs on Whistle Down the Wind are love songs to a mutilated world and a beleaguered humanity, their weariness and valor resonating as much today as they would have at any given point in Baez’ recording life. But love songs they remain: In her trembling read of Anhoni’s “Another World,” a throbbing and delicate album highlight, Baez sounds like she’s stepping onto a train and already regretting her departure; she can’t articulate her search for a better world and a higher plane without rhapsodizing about this one. “I’m gonna miss the birds/ Singing all their songs/ I’m gonna miss the wind/ Been kissing me so long,” she sighs, holding fast to the mortal world in all its ephemerality and imperfection, still the surest thing she’s ever known. Or, as Baez sings on the Tom Waits- and Kathleen Brennan-penned title song: “I can’t stay here and I’m scared to leave.”

Baez has spent her whole life hymning the mutilated world, and mutilated it will remain even once she sings her last. Maybe that’s what she means by titling the album after a gesture of transience; maybe it’s an acknowledgement that, after decades spent singing against war and desolation, she’s ending her recording career with a song called “I Wish the Wars Were Over,” because of course they’re not. But the record’s deep melancholy waters her hard-won hopefulness, weathered and in full bloom: Eliza Gilkyson’s “The Great Correction,” the closest this album gets to a jaunt, imagines the day when the walls of Jericho crumble, a camel passes through the eye of a needle, and the darkest hour gives way at last to dawn. Nobody said any of this would be easy, and so a Josh Ritter composition exhorts us to “Be of Good Heart.” That same song voices a humility born of experience: “I never claimed to know it all,” she sings, summarizing decades spent bearing witness. “All I know is what I’ve known.” And there is resilience, too. Waits’ “Last Leaf”—originally done as a barroom lament with soul survivor Keith Richards—is notably more forceful here. Baez imagines herself a leaf that’s weathered every winter since Eisenhower; she’ll make room for the new shoots of green, but she won’t let go—not yet.

The risk with an album like this—intended as a last will and testament, reckoning with a world that’s in roughly the same shambles she found it in—is austerity. It was produced by Joe Henry, who is singularly gifted at working with septa- and octogenarian artists to generate works that expand their legacies, rather than Cliff Note them. He and Baez address the concern of an insular and self-serious album by steering straight into it, laying all their cards on the table: There aren’t many jokes here and no song that qualifies as a lark; just song after song that burrows deep into earnestness and empathy. It earns our trust through its candor and its sincerity; its cumulative effect is total disarmament.

Whistle Down the Wind stands among the most genteel Joe Henry productions; his inclination toward first-take immediacy, which summoned elegant swing on his Allen Toussaint sessions and hard-boiled grit on his work with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, manifests here as gentleness. Drummer Jay Bellerose, whose rolling thunder is a hallmark of Henry’s production work, mostly offers gentle thumps and cymbal accents. Baez, John Smith, and Greg Leisz join acoustic guitars into a blur of finger-picked melody, while Patrick Warren’s piano and pump organ surface with crystalline romance. “Whistle Down the Wind” sounds at once earthy and windswept, born of this world but no longer tethered to it. “Another World” is skeletal and pulsing, Baez standing ragged and unsure at the song’s center.

She trusts the warmth and sadness of these songs to shine through, and they do. Baez sings with too much affection for any of these songs to lapse into cynicism, and too much weariness for any of them to sound like celebration. And so she is caught between this mutilated world and another, better one she can’t quite imagine; she’ll cling to this until she can’t, and then she’ll let go. In the meantime, Baez leaves us with a Zoe Mulford song called “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” set in the wake of the Charleston church shooting: “But no words could say what must be said/ For all the living and the dead/ So on that day and in that place/ The President sang Amazing Grace.” To sing in the face of sorrow is an amazing grace, indeed; a tender mercy that only a broken world can allow.